All cow fat, all the time.
Let everyone’s collective panties be unbunched: tofu doesn’t live here any more.
I’m not giving up on integrating more vegetarian or vegan meals into my repertoire, but I am giving up on frankenfoods like tofu. It’s still not in the same category as truly unearthly “foods” like quorn, but my kitchen doesn’t need it. Healthy vegetarian foods are easily assembled using whole, fresh ingredients.
That’s not what this is about, though. Well, at least the “healthy” part: this is real deal mac and cheese, the kind made with a classic butter-and-flour roux, milk that has been expelled from a real live cow and not extruded from a bean of some kind, and a shit-ton of cheese. And it feels GOOD, SO GOOD, right up to and including the moment that the final particle of arterial plaque settles in your carotid artery, stopping all bloodflow to the brain.
Suck on that, straight-edgers.
While I made the mac and cheese, I snacked on some sweet sopressata – pork! – and a baguette, and washed them down with a cold Leinie’s.
Those who either live in the upper Midwest or attended college there, as I did, will be familiar with Leinenkugel’s and will understand my joy at finally locating an east coast retailer who regularly carries multiple varieties. This particular evening I went with the Berry Weiss, in remembrance of a senior year trip to Milwaukee’s Summerfest when I got hammered on this marvelous marriage of beer and juice in order to endure a live performance by KC and the Sunshine Band my so-called friends insisted on seeing* (I told you I drank sissy drinks when I was in college). Good times.
*I assume this choice was made for the perceived ironic value. However, I have very sensitive irony-dar and never detected any irony emitting from KC, whose performance was oh-so-painfully sincere.
I like to get my cheese from slightly pissy New York cows.
For a few years, my sister was getting us restaurant gift certificates for Christmas. One year, she found a now-defunct joint called the Herban Kitchen, a small comfort food-style restaurant that used only organically grown/raised, local foods. It was my first exposure to both grass-fed beef and to mac and cheese that didn’t originate in a blue box (mac and cheese being one of the horrifying American foods my mother was psychically unable to lower herself to prepare).
The Herban Kitchen mac was made with three kinds of cheese, cheddar, jack and mozzarella, and came in individually-sized cast iron skillets with delightfully crusty tops that we would fight over until we learned better and started ordering two portions. Using it as my model I went home determined to re-create it, and three-cheese has been the standard for my mac ever since (although the mozzarella was eventually replaced by fontina). For a normal batch – which ’round these parts feeds two for dinner with a few days’ leftovers – I unapologetically use a full pound of cheese. Which explains why I make this roughly twice a year.
The sauteed dog vomit is what give it that certain “I don’t know what.”
Of course, it wouldn’t do to merely use a pound of cheese. We must have butter, whole milk and half-and-half as well.
I use a bechamel to make mac and cheese, which means a roux. If it were up to me most dishes would start with bechamel. Of course, if all things were up to me, my dogs would know how to do the laundry while I’m at work and the Spice Girls would never have exsited.* You can use lots of different fats to make a roux, but I always do equal parts butter and flour, cooked together just long enough to avoid a raw flour-y flavor but not long enough to take on any color.
*At the very least, I’d be happy if the dogs could get some kind of manual labor jobs that don’t require opposable thumbs and would contribute to the mortgage.Do you have pets? They’re fucking moochers is what they are.
Affront to the vegans #1. From the artist’s own collection.
I like to live on the edge, so I use both whole milk and half-and-half to make my bechamel. You could omit the half-and-half, and could probably even downgrade to 2% milk, but know that I would lose all respect for you.
Affront to the vegans, #2. From the artist’s own collection.
Once the milk and roux come up to a bare boil and FULL THICKENING POWER is activated, the cheese quickly disappears into the pot; it melts down so quickly that I barely had time to snap a photo before the whole pile disappeared like an unlucky squirrel in a tar pit. The resulting sauce is luscious and beautifully smooth, with nary a grain in sight.
Bechamel is one of the French “mother sauces,”* and bechamel + cheese creates a Mornay sauce. I’m pretty sure this sauce is not what the French had in mind when they categorized the world’s sauces. Take that, France.
*These are the seven basic sauces that guilt-trip you when you forget to call.
Affront to the vegans #3, soft-porn focus. From the artist’s own collection.
It’s not that cheese is not enough in and of itself, but some additions are tasty: white pepper, garlic powder, dry mustard and a little nutmeg. Smoked paprika can be nice as well, and will give you a much bolder mac and cheese.
Once the cheese and all the spices are fully incorporated, the sauce is done; no further cooking is required. There are people that introduce some egg at this point, which will give you a custardy mac and cheese when baked, but I like plain old oozey cheese.
Just wait: trust me.
Slightly undercooked pasta ensures a seamless meld with the cheese sauce. I like rotini here, because all the little crevices are ideal for carrying maximum amounts of cheese sauce. You could just toss pasta with the sauce and eat this as-is, but then you’d miss out on the crusty top that comes with baking. And you don’t want that, do you? Say no.
So: into a baking dish, sprinkled with plain bread crumbs, and into a 350 oven for 20 minutes or so, with an extra 5 minutes under the broiler to aid in crispification. I know, I could fancy up the breadcrumbs, but I just don’t think it’s worth the pay-off. One of my favorite things about mac and cheese is that it’s relatively quick and painless – the cheese sauce pulls together in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta, and then you get to nap while it’s in the oven.
And this is your reward.
I’ve learned the hard way that this needs to sit for a few minutes after you pull it out of the oven.
SUCK ON IT, TOFU.
I mean, look at that. Do I really need to say anything? It’s crunchy, chewy and gooey all at the same time. It’s comforting and straightforward, but the mix of cheeses gives it a complexity that puts Velveeta to shame.
If you were so inclined, you could let it cool entirely and chop it into chunks which are highly amendable to breading and deep frying, possibly in bacon fat. But you didn’t hear that from me, and I will deny it three times before the cock crows if anyone tries to bring a McDonald’s-style lawsuit against me for causing childhood obesity. (Seriously, though, it’s SO GOOD.)
Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. rotini pasta
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 tbsp. AP flour
1 1/2 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c half and half (or another 1 1/2 c. whole milk)
8 oz. sharp cheddar, grated
4 oz. monterey jack, grated
4 oz. fontina, grated
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1/4 tsp. freshly-grated nutmeg
1/2 c. plain bread crumbs
salt to taste
Pre-heat your oven to 350
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a handful of salt and the pasta; cook until nearly done but not quite, a minute or two less than the package directions.
Make the roux: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add the flour and whisk to combine. Cook for 2-3 minutes; if the roux starts to color, turn the heat down.
Add the milks to the roux and whisk to combine. Keep the mixture over medium heat and bring it to a bare boil. The full thickening power of the roux doesn’t come out until the liquid hits the boiling point, so don’t be alarmed if it looks thin until then (this still makes me nervous every time).
Add the cheese in two batches, whisking to combine. Add the spices along with salt to taste.
Drain the pasta. Toss well with the cheese sauce and pour into a casserole dish. Top with the bread crumbs.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the edges are bubbly. Turn on the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top. Let rest for 10 minutes before eating.